Twenty Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW THIRTY FOUR
About a Nick... He's one of the nicest interviewees that I've had the pleasure to ask my twenty questions to. You'd have to be living under a rock to not know of this guy, so I'll let the interview below speak for itself. Ya never know what people will say to the goat.
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"
Not to my mind, but to my eyes: I squint, to see if I’ve misread something about the band Mountain Goats.
2. What was it like having such success after your first novel?
Pretty good, for about a month. But my first book, Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel, it was a memoir, and after that month I realised that I hadn’t done anything, really. It’s hard to keep writing memoirs, and I had a lot of my career ahead of me. The success of High Fidelity was more important to me, because it was a novel, and I was pretty sure I could write another one. I just want to work, and to feed my family through my work. The way I look at it, each book that does OK buys you the chance to write another one.
3. How many projects do you usually work on at a time? Does it help to have multiple things bouncing around your brain?
The way it’s turned out, over the last few years, anyway, is that I’ve had three or four things on the go at any one time. But that doesn’t mean I look at three or four things in a day, or a week, or even a month. I work on each of them until they reach their next stage, whatever, that is, and then go on to another one. At the moment I have four different movie and TV projects active, but only one of them is taking up an actual writing time at the moment. The other three are all stuck in development, at various stages. And if I were writing a novel, I’d maybe take a break from it after I’d written a third, or a half, to do a draft of something else. Screenplays are useful in that you can get a draft done in six weeks or a month, especially if it’s not the first draft and you have a structure to work off. But of course, when I go to bed at night, my head’s pretty chaotic. It’s hard to govern what you end up thinking about.
4. I see you have your own writing office that isn't at home, do you think it's important to have that kind of space that you have to "go" to?
Well, it helps me. I like the separation, the ability to leave work at the office , the walk to and fro. And if I have to do interviews, I like to meet journalists in a neutral space. I don’t want my home, or my kids, to form part of an interview. It started out as a purely practical arrangement when my children were young and small and not at school, but now it’s just the way things are, and always will be, for as long as I can afford it. BUT, young writers, that’s not the reason your book remains unwritten. Get on with it. I couldn’t afford anything outside the home for a while.
5. In one interview you said that you always knew you wanted to be a writer, even before you wrote, can you expand on this?
I used to think about stories a lot, even if I was too idle to write them down. And then it got to a point where they were stopping me from sleeping, and I knew I had to do something about it. It took years to get to that point, though. And I was resistant to it, I think, as well. Writing has enormous power to mess your life up.
6. You've written lyrics for a bunch of Ben Folds songs, what was it like working with someone across the internet? Do you think the ability to connect like this is going to bring a lot of conglomerations?
Yes, it’s much easier now. I get emails out of the blue, from interesting people, and there’s no way they would have sat down and written a letter to me. There’s no way, either, that I would have written a letter back. So I think there’s the potential for endless collaboration, or endless talk about collaboration, anyway. A lot of it comes to nothing, but so what? I loved working with Ben. It had every possibility of coming to nothing, but we were both stimulated by the challenge, and stuck at it.
7. What was it like selling the movie rights to Fever Pitch, twice?
It was never really exciting! The guy who directed the British movie was always convinced of its cinematic potential, even before the book was published. I thought he was nuts, and was more concerned about publication than movie rights. And we dragged on for a few years, with me writing drafts that got a little better, until Film 4 bought the rights, for a small amount of money. And actually the rights were then theirs to sell on, so there wasn’t really any more. About A Boy was much more fun. I hadn’t submitted it to the movie people, and I still don’t know how they get hold of it, and then there was an auction. It was cool. Not real life, but fun anyway. I’m not sure if people realise this, but an enormous number of novels get optioned for the movies. If you have an idea that involves authentic-seeming people and an original narrative, then someone on the movie food chain will say they want to buy it. But that someone could be a young indie producer who doesn’t have a penny to give you for it.
8. Do you enjoy giving readings? What should someone expect when seeing you read?
I really do, actually. I think I’m OK at it. I tend to read three or four self-contained passages from the first half of a new book, and then do a Q and A. That’s the fun part, I think. That’s where you can get an atmosphere going in a room.
9. I saw that, like a lot of authors, you don't read your reviews. With the amount of good reviews that you get, why not?
Of course, they’re not all good, and even the good ones contain something that’s likely to annoy me, or damage confidence in some way. Half the job is about maintaining confidence – writer’s block is a crisis of confidence. So why do anything to jeopardize the little bit one has? And I don’t think you can learn much from the average one thousand word review. The reviewer has spent a lot less time thinking about the book than you have, understandably, and most reviews are a couple of paragraphs of plot and a couple of paragraphs of adjectives.
10. In one interview you said that you're too social to want to sit on your own for two years writing a book, is that how long it usually takes you to write a book?
Yeah, pretty much. I don’t know where the time goes. The sums don’t add up. I aim to do 500 to a thousand words a day when I’m up and running, which should mean I’m done in 180-odd working days. But I’m not.
11. Do you have someone that is your first reader for everything, or does it all depend on the material?
My wife is my first and best reader.
12. You were a full-time teacher and regular contributor to Esquire, the London Sunday Times, and The Independent, before becoming a novelist, what brought you to fiction?
It wasn’t that way round. I was writing (unpublished and unmade) screenplays and fiction before I started doing journalism. I kind of fell into book reviewing, and then other bits and pieces, and I ended up with a column. But it was always so that I could pay for the creative writing. It was a good thing to have done, for all sorts of reasons.
13. Do you have a favorite book or story that you've written? Why?
Always the next one. The next one’s going to be really good.
14. The collection The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of 14 columns from The Believer and the proceeds are split between the Treehouse charity and a writing centre in Brooklyn, how did you get involved in these?
There are three of those collections out in the US, with a fourth due in the autumn, and the money from those tends to get given away, because I already got paid once for writing the column. TreeHouse is a school for severely autistic kids that my son attends, and 826, the literacy project founded by Dave Eggers, is very important to me,, not least because I got involved in a similar thing here, the Ministry Of Stories. I’ve known Dave for ten years or more, and whenever I go and see him in San Francisco, I’m always incredibly inspired by the energy and imagination of 826 and McSweeney’s.
15. I enjoy that you want people to read your books now, and don't worry about them reading it in the future. Do you think about the legacy that you will leave in literature?
No, never. That way looks like creative death to me. In the end, books last because people read them, and really, nobody can predict whether a book will last. It’s quite clear, when you read Claire Tomalin’s brilliant biography of Dickens, that he didn’t think about his literary immortality for a second. He was bashing things out, usually two books at once, and sometimes it’s quite clear that the books suffered as a result. But would people love them more if he’d written more slowly and more carefully? It’s hard to imagine. I wrote Fever Pitch because I wanted it to be read in 1992 and 1993 and I didn’t think beyond that. But it’s twenty years old now, and it’s still in print.
16. It's easier than ever to find people across the internet with social media, do you believe that it's making being a writer a little less of a lonely occupation?
It doesn’t matter how many friends I have on Facebook – it’s still pretty quiet here during the day.
17. Whenever you're asked about some of your favorite writers, you mention Anne Tyler. What makes you so passionate about her writing?
She more than anybody made me want to write – she made me think it was possible. Soul, characters, humour, sadness - that’s the kind of novel I aspire to.
18. What would you say if one of your boys comes to you in the future and says, "Dad, I want to be a writer?"
I’d be staggered. And I’d probably end up saying what everyone used to say to me: “Fine. But what are you going to do for a job?”
19. I think you're one of the first writer's I've read who is honest about writing to be published, not writing for your self. Do you believe that you can do both? Write for yourself and for money?
It’s not about writing for money. The point I’ve tried to make is that all writers – all novelists, anyway – write with a readership in mind, whatever they say in interviews. That’s why they withhold information in the narrative, and why they make jokes, and why they strive for emotional impact, and why they produce books that are roughly book length, as opposed to a million words long. They’re not doing that because they imagine amusing themselves when they’ve finished. So to say that you’re writing for yourself is disingenuous. And I’ve yet to meet a novelist who wanted to remain unpublished. You may be writing the kind of book that you’d want to read – I hope you are. But that’s really not the same thing as “writing for yourself”.
20. What's next for Nick Hornby?
I want to try and get these screenplays that I’m working on made – or get them into a state where they stand a chance of being made, anyway. I’ve been working on a series for HBO, and there will probably be more work on that, although the odds are always against production, I think, on things like that. And I’ve been adapting Colm Toibin’s wonderful novel ‘Brooklyn’, too, so there will be more work on that – again, it’s going to be tough to find the money for it, but I hope we can. And I’m just beginning to think about a novel set in the 1960s.
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